Opinion: Paranoia in Wellington mayoral race

Wellington mayoral candidates Jo Coughlan (top) and Nicola Young (Newshub.)
Wellington mayoral candidates Jo Coughlan (top) and Nicola Young (Newshub.)

The Wellington mayoral race is becoming bonkers.

The candidates and their support teams are paranoid to the high heavens.

There are accusations of dirty politics and infiltration of public meetings to target opponents.

It started last week when I received an email accusing mayoral candidate Jo Coughlan and her husband Conor English (Deputy Prime Minister Bill English's brother) of bullying and intimidating a member of the public at last Tuesday's Island Bay candidates meeting.

The email came from a person, who wanted to remain anonymous, claiming a woman at the meeting was "aggressively confronted" by Mr English on two occasions and accused of being planted there by another candidate.

Here's the email:

Opinion: Paranoia in Wellington mayoral race

It finished by giving the name, email, and phone number of the "poor lady" and claimed she would be "willing to discuss" the ordeal.

I called the woman - who wants to be known as Josephine. She claimed she had no idea about the email.

"I don't know who this person is," she explained. "I didn't intend to be entangled in it in this manner," she says.

Josephine was reluctant to tell me any more because she had already spoken to Newstalk ZB and promised not to talk to anyone else.

So I called Jo Coughlan. "Sorry, what email is that?," she said. "Who is this person? It would be quite good to establish who the anonymous person is".

I outlined the allegations. She rejected them. She remembers Josephine's question but vehemently denies there was a confrontation by her husband.

"It would be helpful to know who it is [who sent the email], and I guess see if there are any other motivating factors," she exclaimed.

Smear campaign! Was she alleging a smear campaign by one of the other candidates? She told me that's not what she meant.

Opinion: Paranoia in Wellington mayoral race

The Wellington church where the alleged offending happened  

Tuesday rolls around and still no exclusive story on Newstalk ZB featuring Josephine. I call her and she's now happy to tell me what happened.

"Once I had finished my question and was walking down the aisle, I noticed a man who I would say was definitely an English," she says.

This is what she claims happened:

Conor English: "Are you a [mayoral candidate] Nicola Young supporter?"

Josephine: "No."

Conor English: "Are you a [Justin] Lester or [Nick] Legget supporter?"

Josephine: "No."

She also alleges there was another encounter with Mr English and Ms Coughlan at the end of the event.

"He said something along the lines of 'I could start a rumour about you that you're late for work, late for work, late for work'. At that point I just laughed," she says.

She says she didn't feel bullied or intimidated. She just thought it was "inappropriate behaviour" for a possible future mayor and her husband.

I asked if she was planted there to ask the question by any other candidate. She rejected it. I asked if she was politically active. She said she wasn't a member of any party, although had attended a fundraiser for Paul Eagle a few years back.

She admitted to knowing Nicola Young, but hadn't spoken to her in years. I asked her again if someone asked her to ask the question, she rejected it.

So I called Jo Coughlan. She is much more cautious. I am on speakerphone. There's an anonymous man's voice whispering to her. She scoffed at the allegations the whole way through, and took aim at Josephine.

"She clearly intended to intimidate and embarrass me," Ms Coughlan says. She didn't want to go on the record, and finished by suggesting I get legal advice.

Not even 10 minutes pass and I get a phone call from a former colleague-turned-PR guru.

The timing was curious. Very curious.

Opinion: Paranoia in Wellington mayoral race

He asks me to meet him in 20 minutes for a beer at the Backbencher. I accept.

He starts by saying he's not on Ms Coughlan's payroll and not part of her campaign but is acting as her friend of 20 years.

He says there's an orchestrated campaign by Camp Leggett and Camp Young to bring down Ms Coughlan and embarrass her at public meetings with questions about her attendance at council meetings.

He links Josephine and Nicola Young with an old article the latter had written on the former.

He says a person sitting beside Nicola Young's sister at another public meeting had hounded Ms Coughlan about attendance at a different public meeting.

He pointed out I risked defaming Mr English if I went public, pointing out that the Lange v Atkinson defence doesn't apply to spouses of politicians.

I finish my beer and we part ways.

Enter Nicola Young. She's known as a straight-shooting and tough councillor who doesn't hold back. I call her. She's eating a toasted sandwich.

"I haven't seen or had contact with Josephine for years. It's a fantasy, these claims," she says.

"I don't do dirty tricks, I say what I think, and at the end of this campaign, I want to look in the mirror and know that my integrity is absolutely intact," says Ms Young.

"I'm not going to sacrifice my integrity for cheap political thrills," she says.

She rejects the claims she's infiltrating public meetings with family members to shame other candidates. She sends this text to me later:

Opinion: Paranoia in Wellington mayoral race


The story ends here because the drama to scandal ratio is so unevenly balanced to the point that it's just an enormous farce fuelled by paranoia.